McCain, Harry Team Up in Request for Boxer's Pardon

Thursday, 13 Feb 2014 01:38 PM

By Melissa Clyne

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Image: McCain, Harry Team Up in Request for Boxer's Pardon
This undated photo shows boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first African American to win the world champion heavyweight boxing title. Lawmakers are going another round in their fight to get a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman. (AP Photo/File)
Long-time political adversaries John McCain and Harry Reid finally agree on something.

Early 20th century heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson deserves a pardon for a 1913 conviction on a racially motivated charge of illegally transporting a white girlfriend across state lines for immoral purposes nearly a century ago, according to Politico.

Republican Sen. McCain and Reid, a Democrat, each a heavyweight in their respective political parties, penned a letter to President Barack Obama asking for the rare act of granting a posthumous pardon for the first black heavyweight boxing champ.

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"Jack Johnson was a tremendous athlete, and his legacy continues to be marred by this miscarriage of justice," their letter reads. "A posthumous pardon is long overdue, and would be an important step in repairing the legacy of this great boxer and a rare opportunity for our government to right an historical wrong."

It's not the first time the White House has been lobbied for a pardon for Johnson — nicknamed the Galveston Giant after his Texas hometown — who defeated white boxer Jim Jeffries, known as The Boilermaker, after a 15-round bout in Reno, Nev., in 1910, according to information in The Library of Congress.

The match was dubbed the Battle of the Century and sparked celebratory and race riots across the country. His story is the subject of a YouTube video.

Since 1974, lawmakers have tried to pass resolutions seeking a posthumous pardon for Johnson, according to McClatchy News. It would pass one chamber and fail in the other. In 2009 and again in 2011, the resolution passed both the Senate and the House.

Some congressmen thought they might be able to convince Obama, "the nation's first African-American president, to do so on behalf of the world's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. But Obama hasn't issued a pardon either, and his administration says it's unlikely he will."

The Justice Department maintains that it has a general policy "not to process posthumous pardon requests," Politico reports. The White House has not commented on the most recent resolution.

Authorities targeted Johnson's former mistress, a prostitute named Belle Schreiber, to testify that Johnson had paid her train fare from Pittsburgh to Chicago, for immoral purposes. He skipped bail following his conviction, but returned in 1920 to serve his 365-day sentence.

Posthumous pardons are rare but have been granted, according to McClatchy.

"In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army's first African American to graduate from West Point, who'd been forced out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling commissary funds. In 2008, Bush pardoned Charles Winters, who'd been convicted of violating the Neutrality Act in 1948 by helping to transfer two B-17 aircraft to Israel."

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